This time of year I hear that question a lot, from garden clients and from customers at Flora Grubb Gardens. Aeoniums are these beautiful rosette-forming, succulent, small shrubs and perennials. Though often called “Hens and Chicks” like the other succulent genera Echeveria and Sempervivum, Aeonium tend to have a much higher profile in the landscape and are more often called “Houseleek Trees”. They are in the crassula family, along with Jade Plants, and hail from the Canary Islands and much of northern and eastern Africa.
One of my favorite things about the word “Aeonium” is that all five vowels are used exactly once in one word. I’m a geek, I know. “Sequoia” has that going on too. There are about 35 species of Aeonium, and many many varieties have been cultivated beyond those 35. They range from ground-huggers with single rosettes to 4-foot shrubs, and the rosettes will vary from 2 to 12 inches in diameter. The climates they hail from tend to be much like ours here in California. We get warm, dry summers and moderate and wet winters, and not much of a freeze to speak of. Our climate suits them well, and they have been a mainstay in our landscapes here since about the 1920’s I believe.
So what’s going on with them right now? They should have lovely, full rosettes, exemplifying Fibonacci’s Ratio to a T. You see these plants everywhere you look in San Francisco and, indeed, around the Bay. Some look gorgeous still, but why do others look so scrappy?
Succulents aren’t exactly a plant group of their own. There are succulents among many species and genera. What makes a succulent a succulent is that it has adapted to arid or seasonally dry conditions by being able to store water for the dry season – either in its leaves (like an agave), in its trunk (like a cactus or Aeonium), or its roots (like an asparagus fern). All cacti are succulents but not all succulents are cacti, we like to say.
Back to our climate. We have dry summers. Except for fog, there is not water available in the natural landscape from April through September, for the most part. There you have it. Aeoniums, this time of year, are living on reserves. It’s exactly what they’re designed to do, and it’s exactly why they’re looking so scrappy right now. Especially if they’re in a container, where the fog has less soil surface to dampen for them. This time of year – the dry season – is dormant season for them. Just like leafy trees dropping their foliage for the winter, the succulents go dormant in the dry season. They reduce surface area through which to lose precious moisture by dropping leaves. The drier the surroundings, the more they will drop. They can live on the water in their stems with zero leaves, if they have to, turning into a barren taper to survive. When the fall rains again moisten the soil, the leaves will return and the plant will spring back to life.
That’s the beauty of it though. They don’t have to lose so many of their leaves! Just because they’re adapted to drought doesn’t mean you have to make them experience it. I’m all for Xeric gardening (letting nature be the sole water source after establishment), but if you are one who irrigates your garden you’ll notice this plant doesn’t drop all its leaves. It doesn’t have to, because it’s not experiencing the soil drying out. It can keep all the leaves it can handle evaporating through.
Another ugly-making phenomenon that’s not understood happens right before the dry season. Aeoniums make a beautiful flower, and the trigger for the flower is drought. Well, dry season, anyway. They have plentiful water to grow all winter. Come spring, they build up all the energy they can. When the triggers are right (some are drought-triggered, others are age-triggered), they flower.
It’s a bittersweet flowering, though: Aeoniums are monocarpic, meaning they have “one body”. They grow, make flowers, produce seeds, and die. It’s a beautiful flower process. The rosette of leaves will start to stretch into a spiral staircase, and a cone will start to form in the center. The cone will stretch into a cone of yellow flowers about the same diameter the rosette had been, and the leaves fall off. Eventually, the flowers go to seed and the whole thing dies off.
Most Aeoniums will have multiple branches, though, and you’ll never have flowering on all of them. The oldest ones go first. If you have a solo rosette that never formed side branches and that is starting to go to flower, it will likely be done and over if you let the whole flowering process happen. Fine and dandy if you want that, but if you want the same plant to continue on you should decapitate it to a barren stump up to 8″ high before the leaves drop off. You should get two or more new branches forming presently. You can stick that decapitated head in a vase (no water necessary) and watch it finish the flowering process over the coming weeks.
If you have an Aeonium that is looking less-than-ideal this time of year, now you know why! You can change your watering habits with it if you want it to look differently next year, or appreciate that it’s just doing its natural thing and not worry that it’s dying on you. Enjoy!
This blog was really helpful. I learn so much from you Zann. Many thanks.
Thank you, Patrick!
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This is very helpful. But what if I have a planted aeonium that is being watered but experiencing the same issues? Am I not watering it frequently enough?
To some degree it’ll shrink in summer no matter what. Especially if it’s a sunny spot or hot area. We’ve been especially warm this summer, and Aeonium will also drop leaves to keep from respirating too much. If the leaves are getting brown papery spots before dropping, that’s what’s going on.
Yours could just use a little extra water, or perhaps merely a bit of shade if it’s in midday sun.
Thank you so much. That is exactly what must be happening, although it’s not in midday sun. I will give it some more water and stop worrying so much! Really appreciate the help. When is the season / timing that this period ends and the leaves return to their more bulbous state?
They’ll often start to plump up again with the rains, assuming we get some. 🙂 They’ll slow down growth by mid to late October, then kick it back into gear after the Solstice as the days start to get longer again…
Thankyou for such a detailed response! I’m in the south west of Australia and flipping the seasons ( obviously ) I have the same issues. I think our long hot summers are sometimes too much for succulants. They still have needs and can’t be abandoned to the summer. I’ve got a few succulants going to seed and I’m hoping they hold on.
We have a large border (about 30feet)of Aeonium Canariense in our landscape. Some of the plants are 4′ W x 3′ H. What’s happening is the middle of the plant is getting brown and leggy in the center so that we can see brown dead leaves and stems. It’s starting to happen to all of them in varying stages. They were planted 4 years ago and until now have been full and green. Is this a water problem ?
It could be, but if the center of each rosette is still green, it could just be a growth spurt. If the rosette center is what you’re meaning is getting leggy, it sounds like a bloom is in progress. They tend to flower all at once if they were multiple plants from cuttings off the same mother.
I’m happy to take a look if you wanna send a pic… Zann@bozannical.com
it did not help me. The information given on this page I already knew. One of my Aeoniums is dying. It turns black and then dies. It goes from one plant to another. I have isolated a couple healthy plants inside. I live in So. California, great weather, they have enough water, but it is a hot summer where I live. Any ideas what could it be? Thank you.
Hello I have some Tree Aeonium (Aeonium arboreum) they seem to grow to about 6-8 inches tall then they bend right over facing downwards and the stems changing colour do you think this is over or under watering.
Hi Graham! If the heads are full and lush, and that’s happening, it’s most likely to much water. If the heads have dropped leaves and are tiny, and that’s happening, probably to little…
Great article! Should I cut the flower off? How low down (will the entire stalk die?)
Thanks! I usually leave the flower through its lifecycle in my own garden, but cut them for others who like the cleaner look. If it’s branching already, I cut to an inch above the top branch. If no branches, I cut about a third off the top. Not all varieties will branch afterwards, but most do.